Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Before the Booker

For lack of money time and space I rely on Random House’s Borzoi to keep me up to date on what authors are saying, reviews of new books in multiple categories and simple inspiration to read even though I can’t seem to write.

I read about John Banville in passing last year and it somehow stuck in my head that he had been nominated for the Booker Prize in 1989. A short while later, for lack of anything to read on a train journey to Leeds, I wandered into a WH Smith just before and bought Shroud’ (Book 11).

The narrator is Alexander Vander, an elderly professor of literature with an international reputation of being one of the greatest scholarly writers of his time. Early in the novel he admits that his life is a lie: an identity from a friend of his youth, that friends’ bourgeois family in Antwerp that he has claimed as his own, an education fabricated. Alex fled Belgium during the second World War and established himself in California with his wife, whose recent death has brought on the new waves of guilt about his life. He is an unhappy old man, given to a violent temper, alcoholism, rudeness and self-destructive behaviour. His deception weighs heavily and is not helped by a letter from Cass Cleave, a young woman claiming she knows all his secrets. Knowing he must destroy Cass to save his past he meets he in Turin only to discover that she is slightly unhinged herself. His conversations with Cass in a Turin hotel room explore the morality of identity theft, sacrifices people in his life made, the enormity of a life of lies and the path to redemption.

This is an intelligent and detailed novel to say the very least, and it required much more attention than my train journey could possibly give it.

A few weeks later I found 'Eclipse' (Book 12) in a Greenwich bookshop for a fraction of the cost and bought it. What I had not realised is that in 'Shroud' I had inadvertently read the second of the Alex Vander novels. So, upside down I shall continue.

Alexander Cleave faces collapse of his 30 year career, both physically and psychologically. He retreats to his childhood home, now abandoned, in the hope of redeeming his life and being himself rather than all the parts he has been forced to play to the world. Simply be, rather than be for an audience, as it were.

Unfortunately, his abandoned home is full of memories, of his childhood years, his crumbling career and marriage, his estranged relationship with his daughter and his fathers suicide. Also in the house are a strange caretaker and a teenage housekeeper. Memories, inhabitants and apparitions of a woman, a child and a third figure all intertwine to make it a struggle for Alex to confront his own problems. Challenging himself to figure out exactly what has gone wrong with his life Alex comes to realise the ways in which things, time, events and people are not always what they seem and how in time they reveal their true colours.

I wish I had not read them upside down because I knew what to expect with 'Eclipse'. Banville’s prose is brilliant, almost poetic. In both his books he is a bit like a magician, wandering around, setting the scene before with one flash revealing a most amazing trick.

Banville has just yesterday been declared the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2005 for his novel 'The Sea'. This interview with Banville by a brilliant lit blog is evidence though that it takes getting nominated for a Man Booker (as Banville was in 2002) to jump from 4000 copies to 100,000. I’m thrilled Banville got this far. He is a treasure.

I do wonder though, how many brilliant writers are languishing in anonymity, waiting for a literary nomination. If you read something good please buy it, lend it, suggest it, gift it, blog about it.

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